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The Great Western Imagination 

Visions of landscape and wilderness take flight in Anschutz Collection

I suppose that there are a few art lovers and collectors out there so ascetic that they have never entertained fantasies about the collections they'd build if they just had the money to do it. Imagine having plenty of money, a collector's passion and a cultivated eye. Imagine realizing, 35 years ago, that you could acquire great paintings of the vanished American West for a fraction of their real value. And imagine creating what is arguably the finest privately owned collection of Western art in existence, and sharing it with the world ... Well, take all that, make a couple of billion along the way, and you'd be Phil Anschutz.

On display at the Denver Art Museum through Jan. 21, Painters and the American West: Selected Paintings From the Anschutz Collection, is a deeply satisfying exhibition. Aesthetically, it's endlessly interesting. Virtually every significant artist who painted in the West between 1800 and 1950 is represented here, and most by major pieces.

Albert Bierstadt's showy, spectacular "Wind River, Wyoming" is worth the price of admission ($6) by itself, as is Ernest Blumenschein's "Sangre de Cristo Mountains," or even William de Leftwich Dodge's enormous, terminally cheesy "The Death of Minnehaha."

The latter, created in 1885 when the artist was barely 19, depicts a nubile, half-dressed Victorian maiden expiring gracefully while Hiawatha and another figure kneel inconsolably beside her. Above, spirits hover, ready to transport her soul to the netherworld. It's obvious, sentimental, technically superb, and full of cultural texts that even Jacques Derida would delight in deciphering.

Dodge's painting reveals very little about the West, but a great deal about Dodge, and about Victorian America. Similarly, Bierstadt's great work is not about the West, but about the painterly bombast of German Romanticism, grafting 19th-century notions of the immanence and purity of the American wilderness upon the ragged beauty of the Wind River Range. The result is a kind of "Ode to Joy" on canvas, a carefully painted vista of impossible, unimaginable beauty.

Even today, we look at these breathtaking landscapes and assume that they depict specific locations. Many of them were inspired by actual places, but very few are even reasonably accurate. Thomas Moran's "Children of the Mountain" (1866), which shows a rugged mountain vista of lodgepole pines, tumbled boulders and a rushing waterfall, was executed five years before Moran set foot in the Rocky Mountain West. Moran, who remarked that "I place no value on literal transcripts from nature," did not find it strange that he was helping to create public notions of a place that he had never seen. But as far as the public was concerned, that was perfectly OK; after all, as Joan Troccoli points out in a book-length catalog of the exhibition, the locations were so remote from civilization that few viewers would ever be in a position to criticize the artists' fidelity to nature.

To give Moran credit, he did make several trips to the West in the latter part of the 19th century. On one such trip, a young sign painter from Colorado Springs, William Bancroft (who later became a pretty fair landscapist himself), carried the artist's supplies as they trekked through the Colorado mountains. Most importantly, Moran accompanied the Hayden Survey to that part of northwest Wyoming then known as "Coulter's Hell" in 1871. Along with William Henry Jackson's photographs, Moran's extraordinary watercolors of that region's natural wonders helped spur the creation of Yellowstone, our first national park.

While Bierstadt, Moran and other romantics of the early 19th century may have infused their work with cultural biases, many artists came to the frontier with a clear-eyed curiosity that enabled them to create paintings that sympathetically illuminate that vanished time.

In the 1830s, George Catlin, a young American artist with little formal training, conceived an ambitious entrepreneurial scheme. The plan: Journey to the frontier, create hundreds of paintings that would show the lives and customs of the native tribes of North America, and exhibit them in a traveling show. Over a span of 20 years, Catlin executed nearly 600 paintings for his traveling exhibit. As a business venture, it was a bust; as an artistic endeavour, a magnificent success. Catlin's paintings recorded cultures and customs that would literally disappear before mid-century. In 1832, Catlin's travels took him to the Fort Union area (near the present-day Montana-North Dakota boundary), where he depicted the rites by which young Mandan men were initiated into adulthood. They seem accurate; and they're all that we'll ever have, because the Mandans were virtually wiped out by smallpox a few years later. Of the three works on display here, "The Last Race, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony," elegantly composed, though somewhat crudely executed, seems the best.

Seth Eastman's 1848 picture "Chippewa Indians Playing Checkers" brilliantly documents the intersection of European and American Indian cultures. Eastman, a career officer then stationed at Fort Snelling, Minn., shows us three men engrossed in checkers in the doorway of a roughly built wooden hut. Their dress is part European, part American Indian. A rifle leans against a post; beside the checkerboard, a tobacco pipe. Gambling, tobacco, firearms, manufactured clothing, European methods of construction -- it's a fine painting and a wonderful piece of history. Early observers had noted that Indians throughout North America were fond of games, observations that created a popular mythology of the Indian as addicted gambler. (Pretty ironic, considering that today's tribes are raking in big bucks from casinos that cater to Anglos.)

Ernest Blumenschein's "Sangre de Cristo Mountains" of 1926, depicting Penitentes carrying a cross through a snowy landscape at the base of the mountains, is probably Blumenschein's masterpiece and one of the finest works in the show. Like Moran or Bierstadt, Blumenschein shows us an overwhelming landscape, but with a difference. Moran's West is an untameable wilderness; Bierstadt's, an untrammeled Eden. But the penitentes, and their village, are harmoniously integrated into the magical landscape, as is the lone fisherman in Blumenschein's joyful "Bend in the River."

In the jostling, irreverent world of art dealers and collectors, large, important (and expensive!) paintings are simply called "big honkers." The show's full of 'em, but there are some quiet, unassuming pieces as well. Don't miss Worthington Whittredge's small (12 inches by 16 inches), utterly beautiful "Encampment on the Platte River." Unlike virtually every other 19th-century artist, Whittredge was drawn not to the mountains, but to the vast silence and limitless vistas of the plains. The site, somewhere near the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Platte, has vanished by now, swallowed by our state's capital city.

Although the show purports to include every phase in the history of American art since the 1820s, it essentially ends at about 1940. A single painting, and not a very good one at that, represents artists who have worked in the last 60 years (Douglas Wiggins, "Merging Cultures," 1997). Too bad; it'd be nice to see works by modern masters such as Chuck Forsman, John Fudge or Virginia Maitland hung next to those of their illustrious predecessors.

But that's a minor quibble; this is a wonderful show, a magnificent collection and an opportunity to encounter some extraordinary art. Try to go early on a weekend morning, when the galleries will be relatively empty.

Go ahead, enjoy Phil Anschutz's paintings -- he'd join you, but he's too busy running the Santa Fe Railroad, and, we hope, looking for another big honker or two for his collection.

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